Emomali Rahmon

Emomali

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The President of Tajikistan (his official title is now somewhat longer and less catchy: The Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation, President of the Republic of Tajikistan, His Excellency Emomali Rahmon) strikes a great pose and can be found in action all over Tajikistan. I’ve saved you the trouble of traipsing around the capital Dushanbe by creating this gallery of posters, taken this summer, purely for your viewing pleasure. No, really, you’re welcome.

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They cared for cattle more than kids -Tajik President recasts the Soviet era

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Whilst popular opinion across the former Soviet Union generally remembers the Soviet period with more than a hint of the rose-tinted glasses – see this summary of an EBRD survey in 2016 or this Sputnik News story on my blog from August 2016 – one man is seemingly on a mission to upend these conceptions. And he’s someone that people have to listen to – because it’s no less than the President (and Leader of the Nation) of Tajikistan himself.

In his annual address to Parliament at the end of 2016, President Emomali Rahmon apparently delivered a blistering attack on reports from the Soviet period, denouncing their claims that education in the country was operating to a high standard as “lies”.

In an article on the address [ru], reliable local news agency Asia Plus reports that the President told the audience that the Soviet authorities were more concerned with increasing livestock and collective farm numbers than with building schools or hospitals. This from a man who worked on a collective farm for around 20 years from the mid-1970s before entering politics and thus knows his cattle.

Meanwhile, Rahmon’s government has built or reconstructed over 2,500 schools over the last 25 years. In 2016 alone, a total of 540m Somoni (US$64.5m) was spent on building/reconstructing 201 schools and providing new school places for 39,000 students. Furthermore, whereas in 1991 there were 13 higher education institutions with 70,000 students, there are now 39 institutions educating 170,000 students. [Put aside, for now, your questions about relative vs absolute growth (the Tajik population has grown continually from 2m in 1960 to 5m in 1991 to over 8m today) and quantity vs quality.]

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Soviet poster from the 1950s (source) comparing education in the USSR favourably to education in the USA. Top caption (with cheerful girl) reads: “In the USSR, school building in urban and rural areas increased by around 70% between 1951-55 compared to the previous Five Year Plan period.” Compare this to the glum American boy facing a closed school at the bottom, where the caption says “The US allocates 1% of its budget to education compared to 74% to military spending. There are more than 10 million illiterate people in the USA and around a third of children do not go to school.” Propaganda at its finest. And obviously there are no connections between the choice of this poster and the issue at hand in this post.

 

 

 

Although the official version of the President’s speech [ru] makes no reference to cattle or explicitly to the Soviet period (perhaps the oral speech was somewhat different from the written address to enliven it?), there is a definite sense that the past is being rewritten in the President’s image. The written version of the speech is littered with statistics that aim to quantify the regime’s achievements. This, arguably, is a common tool employed by political and other leaders and thus unsurprising to see such rhetoric in use in Tajikistan too. Little wonder that the phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics” has gained such purchase over the years. Or to give it its new American name, “alternative facts“.

Lest we digress on to the uses and abuses of statistics and comparison, I will end by drawing your attention to one quote from the written version of the speech (not mentioned in the Asia Plus article). Although it is not connected to education, I think it speaks volumes about the rewriting of Tajikistan’s recent history. If you’re unsure or unconvinced, read this article which emphasizes the multi-faceted and national drivers of the civil war after you read the quote.

В начале 90-х годов прошлого века Таджикистан под воздействием вмешательства некоторых зарубежных стран, осуществляемого под лозунгом демократизации общества, столкнулся с острыми внутренними конфликтами, этот процесс довёл нас до навязанной гражданской войны и братоубийственной трагедии.

[In the early 1990s, Tajikistan experienced an acute internal conflict under the influence of intervention by some foreign countries with their banner of societal democratization. This process brought us to an imposed civil war and fratricidal tragedy.]

 

Faculty blamed for poor standards at Kulob State University, Tajikistan

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An unusually critical article was published recently in Asia-Plus – one of Tajikistan’s last remaining bastions of press freedoms – observing a worrying drop in educational standards at Kulob State University [ru], nominally one of the best in the country.

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A totally irrelevant (irreverent, some might say…) image about knowledge and cats.

Two main causes are identified: the fact that many of the better qualified faculty have left the university (20 instructors last year alone), and the fact that those who remain are not sufficiently qualified to be able to do their job properly.

Even the university rector acknowledges that the brain drain has had a negative impact on quality at the university. As the top posts in Tajik universities are appointed by the national government, it is rare for senior leaders to speak to the press – and rarer still for them to acknowledge that the Leader of the Nation (as President Emomali Rahmon is now known, following a referendum earlier this year) may not have all the answers. Kulob is not far from Danghara, the President’s hometown, and this southern region of Tajikistan has benefited greatly from capital and other investment in recent years. Kulob State University opened its doors to a new “modern and luxurious building” on its campus [en] just a year ago.

Yet shiny new buildings do not educate students: lecturers do. The Asia Plus article is scathing about the lack of qualifications of many of the remaining instructors. Journalist Hamidi Imoniddin draws on the university’s own data showing that nearly 40 lecturers were unable to submit properly written job documents – many of whom are the university’s own graduates. Because of the lack of properly qualified instructors, the university is resorting to newer researchers who do not meet the qualification requirements (generally a PhD) and do not have much by way of work experience. Even after offering a salary raise last year, university staff in Kulob are underpaid and this is certainly contributing to the outflow of more suitable candidates for faculty leadership roles.

All of this suggests an alarming downward spiral, where students can’t get a decent higher education because the staff don’t have the skills, experience or resources (textbooks and the like) to support them, and the staff who could be inspiring the next generation are leaving the town or even their profession in the hope of a better future.

As one of the comments on the article points out, this isn’t just a problem being faced by Kulob State University. There are nearly 40 universities in Tajikistan and the challenges fleshed out in Imoniddin’s article are common the most of them. System-wide reform of the higher education system would be the main step towards making positive change, but this needs to be accompanied by a reaffirmation of the value that higher education can bring for individuals and the population as a whole for any reforms to be truly successful.

President for life is a step too far

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I tried not to write about this. I really did. Although some of my posts have a political edge to them, I have endeavoured to keep this focussed on the impact for higher education and society in Central Asia. My aim is to keep positive, to look for ways that higher education can be improved so that people in Central Asia can benefit from a good quality university or college education that will help them and help the societies around them.

But in the end my frustration with the latest government news, that the President is now “Leader of the Nation” and has, along with his family, life-long immunity, got the better of me. This feels even more injust during a week when a terrible earthquake hit the Bartang valley in the Pamirs in south-eastern Tajikistan. For those of you outside Central Asia, did you even know about this? It’s unlikely: press coverage has been spartan. As an important aside, you can find out more and help two brilliant initiatives to provide grassroots support at https://www.gofundme.com/helpbartang and http://www.bartang-has-future.com/english/update-severe-earthquake-in-bartang/.

Back to my annoyance. But rather than say any more myself, here’s a sample article from the UK’s Guardian newspaper, sourced from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/11/tajikistan-emomali-rahmon-legal-immunity. Read it and (try not to) weep…

Tajik president and his family to get life-long legal immunity

Emomali Rahmon’s properties also exempt from any proceedings in bill passed by lower house of parliament

Tajik lawmakers have voted to grant the president, Emomali Rahmon, and his family life-long immunity from prosecution, drawing sharp criticism from pro-democracy campaigners.

The parliament’s lower chamber has passed a bill that gives Rahmon the title “Leader of the nation” and officially designates him “the founder of peace and national unity of Tajikistan”.

The authoritarian Rahmon, 63, is a former collective farm chief who has been in power since 1992, a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under the bill, property belonging to both him and his relatives would also be exempt from legal proceedings.

With both chambers of parliament dominated by government supporters, the bill’s approval by the upper house is considered a formality.

Elections in Tajikistan are routinely criticised by international observers and deemed fraudulent by Rahmon’s opponents.

Prominent Tajik human rights activist Oinihol Bobonazarova, who sought to run for president in 2013 but was not allowed on the ballot, said the bill made a “mockery of democracy”.

“Tajikistan positions itself as a democratic country; therefore it must keep on sticking to democratic norms,” she said. “It must be democracy in action, not an imitation of democracy.”

Rahmon has sought to strengthen his grip on the poor, predominantly Muslim country, which borders Afghanistan and has seen hundreds of citizens leave for the Middle East to fight alongside Islamic State militants.

The government banned central Asia’s only registered Islamic party this year after designating it extremist. Leaders of the party, once a major opposition force, have been accused of planning to overthrow the government. The party, which was involved in Tajikistan’s 1992-97 civil war, rejects the accusations.

Lower house speaker Shukurjon Zuhurov said that the law would not contradict what he called “ongoing democratic processes in Tajikistan”, adding that titles such as Leader of the Nation had been given to heads of state in several countries.

The bill is similar to laws in two other central Asian states whose presidents have held power for years and tolerate little dissent.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has enjoyed immunity since 2000 and was designated Leader of the Nation in 2010. The late Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov held the title Turkmenbashi (The Leader of All Turkmen) until his death in 2006; his successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, is officially called Arkadag – the protector.